The price of victory

October 01, 2006

In a long rant Friday morning about actions taken hastily for political gain, the dean of the Senate, West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd, lamented to his colleagues: "Keeping our job means more than doing our job well."

His observation was particularly apt when applied to the sweeping military tribunals bill rushed to enactment as Congress was racing out the door this weekend to campaign for re-election. Republicans were eager to embellish their credentials as tough on terrorists; too many Democrats were reluctant to put up an effective resistance for fear of appearing soft on terrorists.

In the process, a slew of rights long considered both fundamental to and emblematic of the American system of justice have effectively been discarded. Winning or retaining a majority in Congress seems to have become more important to lawmakers in both parties than their duty to protect American liberty and values.

There may well be principled supporters of the legislation, particularly among Republicans, who believe those who function outside all recognized laws and traditions of civilization in their quest to commit unspeakable acts against the United States don't deserve any rights.

But even such lawmakers must have a tinge of doubt about denying prisoners, including legal residents of the United States, the right to challenge their confinement. Such habeas corpus petitions are fundamental to English common law and date back to the Magna Carta. They protect the innocent against abuse and mistakes.

For Senate Democrats, who mostly opposed the measure, the decision not to employ delaying tactics against it is even less forgivable.

Most Democrats were at least brave enough to vote against the legislation, calculating that the political power of anti-terrorism has diminished since the previous two elections. But they didn't do their job as well as they could have. Senate rules were devised specifically to allow a minority to stand against a popular but ill-advised tide to allow more time for thoughtful consideration.

Perhaps there was never a time, even during Mr. Byrd's half-century of service, when lawmakers acted totally on principle without regard to re-election. But that should nonetheless be the ideal.

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